The divided Irish; an historical sketch


In most histories of Ireland impartial students will perceive how averse or unable their authors are to recognise any merit in opponents, whether religious or political. Yet it would be unfair to ascribe evil motives to these writers. The truth probably is that before writing history they resolve to do all they can to promote certain views or principles they believe correct, and, therefore, they write with the zeal of retained advocates. For this object, the less said about the merits of opponents or the errors of partisans, the better. If both could be concealed, when they cannot be denied, all the better, they think, for the public. Should readers, therefore, occasionally draw wrong inferences, they believe even this result would do less harm than to weaken a right cause by arousing admiration for any of its foes, or contempt for any of its supporters. So general is this party spirit, that readers who love truth for its own sake must yet calmly examine even unjust writers, as most of them teach some truth, a few perhaps nothing but the truth, but hardly any the whole truth. This state of mind among educated men can only be attributed to that unreasoning, and therefore unreasonable, aversion with which they view matters of opinion, irrespective of conduct and character. The practical result is inevitable, for good and bad men, the most conscientious and most unscrupulous, are united and opposed in religious and political views.

These unnatural alliances and enmities for the sake of differing religious or political opinions, have always been among the most dangerous moral results of civil war and rebellion. Usually after the excitement of conflict is over, the public mind, through the influence of peace and reflection, is able to recognise some merit in the most inveterate opponents. This fairness of judgment Shakespere and Scott alike display. The former in historical plays describes Henry the Fourth’s rebellion against his cousin, Richard the Second, the subsequent wars of the Roses, and part of Henry the Eighth’s reign, without bitterness against any party. Even his description of the French wars in “King John” and “Henry the Fifth” would offend neither English nor French. The champions of York and Lancaster, in his dramatic picture of the English civil war, show the same combined heroism and cruelty, the same devotion to ideas of political duty, and the same ferocity which really distinguished both parties in their terrible contest. In Scott’s subsequent historical novels describing the British civil wars and Jacobite rebellions of 1715-45, he, like his poetical predecessor, conveys historic truth with remarkable impartiality, while involving it with imaginary characters and incidents. If these works are compared with the histories of Holinshed, Clarendon, Hume, Hallam, Macaulay, and Green, their resemblance in most events and characters is undeniable, and acknowledged by literary men of the present century. These writers, when mentioning Irish history, are forced to trust authorities generally more partial than truthful; for most writers on Ireland should be calmly examined, and allowance made for excited language and intense party spirit, otherwise erroneous ideas are sure to be inspired. In this respect the contrast between British and Irish histories deserves far more attention than it receives.

The Jacobite revolts of 1715-45, and even the terrible career of Napoleon the First in this century, are now alike discussed with perfect calmness in Britain and throughout the Continent. The sanguinary records of these devastating wars no longer arouse social or national hostility. Yet their enormous destruction of human life occurred within the last hundred and fifty years. In Ireland historic recollections of the comparatively remote wars of Cromwell and Charles the First, of James the Second and William the Third, each vaguely connected with the first historical warfare of English and Irish, to this day arouse deadly hatred. It would seem from the works of Edmund Spenser, Milton, and other early Protestant writers on Ireland, as well as from the conduct of Irish Catholics, that they agreed in believing that neither of them could live in Ireland without the oppression, if not the extinction, of the other.* This antipathy, for a long time strictly national, became mingled with, and was finally superseded by, religious animosity.

*”Compromise had become impossible. The two infuriated castes were alike convinced that it was necessary to oppress or to be oppressed, and that there could be no safety but in victory, vengeance, and dominion.”—Macaulay’s “History of England,” Vol. III.

The penal laws sanctioned by British Protestants against Irish Catholics were strongly recommended by the Protestant colonists. They had narrowly escaped and still dreaded extermination by the Catholic majority, against whose religion rather than race these persecuting laws were directed. The enactments, evidently caused by fear of the same religious bigotry in others, which they themselves reveal, practically rewarded all Irish who abandoned Catholicism, while threatening more penalties than the government were able to inflict on those who remained true to their faith. These laws, recorded in one-sided histories, and recalled in violent political speeches, are the foundation in many Irishmen of political and social prejudices to this day.

Although since the reign of William the Third many Irish revolts or tumults, as well as constant hostility between secret societies, have occurred, none so completely form Irish ideas or absorb their sympathies as the religious war terminated by his triumph. While educated Irishmen, mixing in British or foreign society, generally share in the progressive enlightenment of their times, this influence has been surprisingly little felt by the Irish masses in their own country. With them former wars are recalled by worldly interests, religious prejudices, and political hopes, almost as vividly .as if the great civil war of 1688 had occurred within living memory.* The sieges of Derry and Limerick, and battle of the Boyne, not only cause annual celebrations, but are constantly recalled in songs, speeches, riots, and sermons. Ardent interest in such memories is not confined to the old or reflecting members of the Irish community. Young men, even lads, especially in Ulster, find in them constant incentives to quarrels and fights.

*”No amnesty for the mutual wrongs inflicted by the Saxon defenders of Londonderry and by the Celtic defenders of Limerick has ever been granted from the heart by either race. Neither of the hostile castes can be justly absolved from blame.”—Macaulay’s “History of England, Vol. II., chap. vi.

Maledictions on the Pope, whoever he is, and on William the Third, as the immortal representatives of Irish Christian divisions, are constantly uttered, scrawled on doors, affixed to walls, shouted in the streets and at public meetings. The weekly sermons, which in Ireland often influence politics far more than in England, besides local newspapers, preserve with zealous, untiring energy, the historical recollections which to this day chiefly guide Irish public opinion.

The so-called National poetry also has a powerful effect in the same direction. Moore’s Irish melodies, combining ancient music with comparatively modern and thoroughly anti-English sentiments, though beautifully expressed in the enemy’s language, have probably great effect in maintaining, if not increasing, historical enmity to England. Although he avoids mentioning Christian divisions, yet British authority has been so long identified with Protestantism, that his constant allusion to Saxon oppression can only excite anger against British rule. In this respect Moore, though residing much in England, has inspired or maintained the same enmity to it as his Irish poetical predecessors displayed.
The old Irish bards, whose influence their English fellow-poet, Spenser, so strongly condemns, have long been surpassed in popularity, though perpetuated in sentiment, by their brilliant successor.* Moore, while enjoying English admiration, praise, and patronage, nevertheless imitated those unfortunate minstrels, who certainly received very different treatment from the same nation, against which they alike directed their poetic genius.** To encourage Irish hatred to modern England may not have been Moore’s intention, but it was the result of many of his most beautiful verses. Their influence in Ireland has, perhaps, been greater than ever contemplated by the writer. He might have thought he could as safely allude to English invasions as Scott did when describing British civil wars in his novels and poems.***

The more recent Scottish writers, Alison and Aytoun, express Tory views freely in prose and verse, but all historical rancour seems to have vanished from Scotland. Macaulay describes Scottish civil wars in a spirit quite opposed to them, yet none of these writers irritate their fellow-countrymen against each other, nor rouse enmity to England. Their views are alternately approved or blamed, believed or distrusted by the British public, without anger or excitement. In Ireland the same calm judgment on matters of history remains comparatively unknown. The progress of time has had less effect in calming popular feeling in it than in any other European country.

*Moore thus defends himself for living in England, which so rewarded his talents; even in this beautiful vindication he evidently censures British rule in Ireland:—

“Oh ! blame not the bard if he fly to the bowers,
Where pleasure lies carelessly smiling at fame,
He was born for much more, and in happier hours
His soul might have burned with a holier flame.
But, alas for his country! her pride has gone by,
And that spirit is broken which never would bend;
O’er the ruin her children in secret must sigh,
For ’tis treason to love her, and death to defend,” &c.

If Moore did not mean political allusion by these lines, yet such would certainly be their construction among many Irishmen even to the present day.

**”There is amongst the Irish a certain kind of people called bards, which are to them instead of poets. There is none so bad but shall find some to favour his doings, but such licentious poets as these, tending for the most part to the hurt of the English, or maintenance of their own lewd liberty, they themselves being most desirous thereof do most allow. Do you not think that many of these praises might be applied to men of best deserts? Yet are they all yielded to a most notable traitor.”.—Spenser’s “View of Ireland.” Centuries later, in the English capital were sung to a delighted British audience Irish melodies, also tending decidedly to “the hurt of the English.” Yet the charm of the music and beauty of the poetry apparently overcame even the Scottish Tory, Sir Archibald Alison. “It was very difficult for young men to resist the attraction of a society where Moore sang his bewitching melodies, with still more bewitching right honourables, in the evening, and the lustre of the most splendid assemblies or balls closed the scene of enchantment.”—”History of Europe,” Vol. I., chap. v.

***Scott unites patriotism with poetry without rousing the least national bitterness.
“Flodden’s fatal field,
Where shivered was fair Scotland’s spear,
And broken was her shield.”—”Marmion.”

Moore, writing some years later, constantly appeals to Irish historical animosity :—

“But onward! the green banner rearing,
Go, flesh every sword to the hilt;
On our side is Virtue and Erin;
On theirs is the Saxon and Guilt.”

And again:—

“Thus freedom now so seldom wakes;
The only throb she gives
Is when some heart indignant breaks
To show that still she lives.”

The following lines are not calculated to discourage dynamite plots or political assassination among the Irish at home or in America:—

“Though sweet are our home recollections,
Though sweet are the tears that from tenderness fall,
Though sweet are our friendships, our hopes, our affections,
Revenge on a tyrant is sweetest of all.”—”Irish Melodies.”

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